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Alum Key Engineer on Healthcare.gov Project

Hack Reactor

Alum Key Engineer on Healthcare.gov Project's Image

After the very public failure of HealthCare.gov, the website through which people were to select and purchase health insurance as part of the Affordable Care Act, a team of twelve software specialists was brought into fix the app. This team included Christian Monaghan, who graduated Hack Reactor a year ago, and has been working as an independent contractor, principally for the U.S. government, since then. His team was contracted by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which is a part of the Health and Human Services department. Monaghan gave an enlightening talk at the school on why HealthCare.gov initially failed, and what he and his team did to fix it.

The original site was built piecemeal by different contracting firms and lacked a holistic vision. One of the first tasks that Monaghan and his team had was to bring a Software Engineering perspective to the site design, and to reconstruct it in a logical way.

“It became apparent that the existing site was not going to work long-term,” Monaghan explains. “It had a lot of critical flaws and it was decided it would be a good idea to build a new site from the ground up.”

The team quickly built a faster, more capable app, able to process tens of millions of users.

“We’re handling about 70% of the population,” Monaghan notes.

The new app reduced the number of total interfaces and user interactions required, shortening lag time and eliminating a number of infinite loops that made signing up for health insurance impossible for the first wave of users.

Despite his atypical path, working in the public sector instead of the private sector, Monaghan found that his Hack Reactor education was equally applicable.

"Our tech stack was identical to what Hack Reactor teaches: AWS, Node, Express, Backbone MySQL database, MariaDB, Bootstrap. Basically everything I use here is something I learned at Hack Reactor."

The experience revealed to Monaghan that government agencies lack the agility of Silicon Valley companies, and run into issues due to a lack of technical expertise in decision-making positions. However, Monaghan was quick to point out a silver lining:

“We’ve had a unique opportunity to show government agencies that there’s another way to do things: Bringing in agile development styles, monitoring and doing analytics on your applications. We’re setting a model for a different way for things to be done, quicker and cheaper and more reliably.”

He also points out that the team working on HealthCare.gov has been willing to adapt to industry-standard apps:

"They now use HipChat internally, they use Google Docs internally," he notes. "They now use AWS in their stack instead of having to build their own data centers. They've been very willing to listen to new ideas, it's just that they've been starved for those, because the existing contractors are large firms that don't know any of that stuff themselves."

Monaghan’s experience shows the effectiveness of good engineering principles, regardless of the client or the situation. Because of his and his team’s work, millions of people have signed up for health insurance on a functional, efficiently built site.

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